20 juin 2015

Chapter 21

              A few seconds go by with the both of us floating there, perfectly horizontal, perfectly parallel. The silver Elf's face keeps going from shock to wonder, and it's clear he's not doing anything to hold me there. But then… how? I can’t be doing it either, since I can barely move or think straight. What energy would I be using to fly, if I had none left? 

Demetrius takes me out of my confused misery by finally drawing nearer and very carefully surrounding me with his arms.

"Are you unwell?" he huffs in a slightly panicked tone. At first I wonder why he's being so intense about it, before realizing that with this people's no-healing-or-treatment ideology, any sort of "unwell" is a grave matter here.

"I think I'm...weak, because of what I am," I mumble, grasping for inspiration for all the lies that will inevitably follow.

"What do you mean?"

"I'm just--" I'm too exhausted to come up with a coherent, full sentence,"-I wasn't born right" 

A bit on the dramatic side, but not entirely false. Please, please buy this! Cause I have nothing else, and this helpless state is really, really reminding me of the assault. Apparently, putting an entire world between that memory and myself wasn’t enough to erase it.  

He pauses, and the slow, ensuing smile he gives me seems not only satisfied with my answer, but also a bit... affectionate?

"Don't be afraid," he winks reassuringly while changing the embarrassingly close hug into more of a damsel-in-distress carrying, "I'll bring you back down now". But the minute I relax, whatever's been keeping me afloat disappears, and my entire weight suddenly pushes down on his arms.

He tightens his grip to counter the surprise, and shakes his head in disbelief. "Do you see what you did there? You put your powers to rest without even realizing it. 'As natural as breathing, as powerful as your will'... Lily, I think we have found your Talent!"

I smile, not lucid enough to fully understand his cryptic words, but reassured by his delicate presence, and drift off into a semi-unconscious state as he flies us back down to solid ground.

 The first thing I hear is a flurry of voices, and hazily recognize Peter's. Thank God, he's here... And this is definitely the ground I feel beneath me. I slowly open my eyes and see, in what appears to be a rather private area back at the Aptitude Level, the entire group next to me, including an ogling yet unworried Chloë. The grown-ups are engaged in what looks like a heated discussion. There's also a female Elf I've never seen before - Indya? Peter notices I'm conscious and quickly switches to English. 

"What do you mean she fell?!" 

"Please, forgive me Peter, she just went limp in my arms and pulled out of them. It caught me by surprise, and I'm very, very sorry! You're aware of my speed, so you know I would have caught up with her eventually. But you're forgetting what's important here: she stopped her own fall! I swear on all the Elders, she flew!"

Peter glares at him, unconvinced. The fact that he is more set on questioning Demetrius than asking me if I'm alright proves that he is still mad. Geez...

Dem understands that his supposed discovery of my Talent seems to be less important to everyone than my fainting in mid-air; so he tries to calm Peter down by conveniently providing the excuse I gave. "Do you think she is weak because of the way she was conceived? She seems to think she's fragile because she was born from your drawing..."

Peter throws a very swift glance my way, and I'm sure I see a subtle, cunning twinkle there. He pauses for a few seconds, and says, "That’s the only theory that’s crossed my mind so far, and it’s driving me insane. As you might suspect, I had no idea what I was doing then, and I don't know what exactly is happening to her now. 'As natural as breathing,' right?"

Dem nods, as these words echo his. What is this? A motto here or something? 

"I guess it's inevitable then..." Peter puts on an exaggeratedly musing face, and it seems like I'm the only one there to think it's downright fake. What's he up to?

"What is?" Vlad asks, almost as confused as I am.

"I'll need to go back to the start: I need to get her drawing from my Space, and try to alter it. Maybe that would remove the imperfections. We were planning on passing through on our way to Danielle's, but I believe this is an emergency".

What? What's he talking about? The drawing is not even in this world, so how could it be in his Space?!

He shares a look with Nirav, then unveils what he thinks sounds like an unrehearsed plan, in a very pragmatic, managerial kind of way. "Vlad, Dem, Indy, could you please stay with her? As for you, Nirav, we've already asked so much of you; and you've done us so many priceless favors. At this point, it's fully up to you whether you choose to stay or leave."

No!! Not Nirav as well!

The tall Elf doesn't even bother to reflect on it. He takes a step forward, as if choosing to accompany him. 

I try to sit up, but my body just doesn't follow. I then open my mouth to object, however weakly, but Vlad stops me with a subtle, swift head shake. Are they really leaving me here?! 

I panic as I hear the others agreeing, and slowly but surely, my senses are boosted, in that creepily magnifying way. Peter kneels next to me and whispers, "We're going to solve this. Don't you dare get worse on me in the meantime!" 

Huh, as if I had a choice!

He gives me one last, long look, and stealthily lets the back of his fingers touch mine. With my super-senses switched on, it’s like his skin sort of merging with mine for a warm, intense second. It seems like eons since he's last touched me. And then, in what feels like a band-aid being ripped off a fresh wound, he gets up, nods curtly to everyone, and follows Nirav.

No, don't leave!!!

My heart rate doubles, as I distinctly feel them walking further and further away. No, come back!!! They keep walking till, at one point, I sense their steps slowing down. I turn and see Peter staring my way from a distance, with a clearly guilty look on his face. I try to scream out to him but I have no strength left for that. I just desperately watch as he turns and continues to grow further and further away, though I can still perceive him very clearly. And then, when he and Nirav are far enough not to be seen by the others, they very abruptly generate an incredibly powerful amount of heat, so powerful I could sense it against my cheeks, and just like that, disappear from my radar. 

What?! Where did they go? I should still be able to sense them!


Oh no... No, no, no!!! They're not really going to Peter's Space, are they?! 

They've gone to get me food... They've jumped to the Garden!!! My Garden! Without me!

Argh, no, no!!! I can't believe I've missed my chance!!! Damn you, Peter! And damn you useless, weak, human body!!!

I should have gone with them! But they left too quickly, and were too far away for me to sneakily hang on to either one of them - their arms, their legs, anything! - and get teleported along.

I glare at Vlad and heavy tears suddenly pool in my eyes.

His features tense up and he rapidly twirls and hides me from Dem and Indya. With his back turned to them, he draws a quick Lume, puts it over his mouth, and then jams it into my ear. I hear his voice, whispering in a panic, "Crying is Human! Stop!"

But I just can't help it. Right now, Peter feels more and more like a traitor, and the prospect of having missed probably the only opportunity to go home, within this Raede at least, is utterly inconceivable. I turn away from Vlad and the others, and let my silent tears flow, unhindered. 

A few moments of silence follow, as if echoing the void I'm slowly sinking into, before the remaining Elves start a whispery talk. It feels like they're tactfully speaking low so as not to increase my state of unwellness. The only oblivious one is little Chloë. She just walks round to me, sits on the grey, sandy ground, and starts touching every rolling tear, then staring at her fingers, intrigued. I watch her for a long while, dulling my senses in the process, before I hear a non-familiar voice sneak up on us from behind. "She's really taken a liking to you, hasn't she?"

I know the voice is Indya's, but it's not the reason why my skin is abruptly covered with goosebumps, as badly as when it was still fully Human. The voice, the tone, the accent… they all sound so… Earthly!!  

I swiftly run the back of my hand across my cheek, making sure to remove any wandering tears, and turn to face her. Big grey eyes, ash-blond hair with careless curls, a flowing cream dress, and an overall nymph-like demeanor. On one side of her head, there's even a small, golden half of a crown which, though metallic-looking, is a perfect carving of small twigs and flowers. If I didn't know any better, I'd say she was probably this world's equivalent of a hippie.

"She's wonderful," I mumble.

"In normal cases, I would have told you to teach her, but I'm sorry to say that she seems to have more training than you!" she jokes. I smile, although her words may be confirmation of how obviously different, clueless, and far I am from ever really blending in.
"Why do you say this?" I venture.

"First off, you stare. Whenever any of us speaks, especially Peter, your eyes follow and linger. I realize your bond with him is strong, and clearly none of us knows the implications of being born straight from someone's Talent, but this is one of the first things we tell Initiates: Perceive enough to fill your Spirit, but don't stare."

What?! Chloë stares much more than I do! 

"Spirit?" I ask as ingenuously as possible. Besides trying to sound child-like enough not to comprehend metaphysical notions, I'm also curious to know how an Aelfric defines them.

"Yes, it's your... Essence, or the Energy through which you think, create and feel, no matter the Vessel... Hey -- you're staring again!"

"I'm so sorry!" I look away and expect the impossible blushing, "I just... don't understand what you're saying." Come on, hippie Elf, spill!

Instead, she gives me nothing but a scandalized frown. "Hasn't Peter told you anything about anything?" 

I almost smile at how Human that sounds, and quickly shake my head. That seems to push her off the edge, as she angrily turns and calls out to Vladimir. "You royal idiot!" she throws, and I gulp. There is no way she's heard this expression in Elf land. "She's on her way to see Danielle and you didn't think it relevant to teach her anything at all?! If Peter hasn't taken the time to teach her, why haven't you? Is this your way of educating a Newborn?" she tsks. 

"She's too young..." he protests.

"She doesn't look young to me!" her eerily Human voice comes out again, making me like her instantly. When she speaks, it sort of feels like listening to a parent, defending their kid against bullies.

I avoid looking at Vlad, although I feel him take a step forward. I know he disapproves of this and would attempt to interfere and stop her from revealing the Realm secrets, as Peter would wish him to do. But both Peter and Nirav have left him in this mess, and he let them! So he might as well allow her to tell me, then have Peter deal with the consequences at his return.

"Nevermind him,” Indya says, more determined than ever. “You answer to me now; he clearly hasn’t earned that from you,” she glances at him and makes a funny, taunting face. “Close your eyes, Little One… Now, you should be standing up for this, but we don’t really have a choice. Don’t be scared, I’m just going to put my hand on your forehead. If you feel weird, just…” But I’ve stopped listening to her. Somewhere between the moment I felt her palm on my forehead and her last words, an entire world was created around us. From the darkness behind my eyelids stemmed this CGI-animated, abundantly colourful carousel of images. It was just like being inside a spinning magic lamp. I can still feel her hand, but no longer see her or my own limbs when I try looking at them. It’s eerie yet so luminous and enthralling that I just give in and start making out what it is she’s trying to show me.  

The first thing I notice is of course the gold, mixed with everything. Landscapes, silhouettes, fleeting images of faceless, stylized Elves… all glimmering as in a beautiful mirage

“We are Creatures of Space and Time,” 

Inside the illusion, her voice suddenly fills my ears like Surround Sound, and takes on this grand yet kitsch storyteller’s tone, which almost makes me snort. A sobering image puts an end to it though: a flock of gliding, faceless Elves slow down, as if listening to her tale. 

“We have no beginning, and thus we are endless.” 

A crowd of other Elves join in, forming a wide sea of slender, graceful beings, reaching the far, golden horizon.     

 “But we are only  so as a People. As individuals, we end, and we move on.”

The ethereal crowd splits down the middle, revealing a wavering Aelfric who collapses in slow motion, falling backwards like the Little Prince drawing, and then elegantly rising again – not his opaque spirit, but all of him – and shooting upwards like a light arrow. 

“The Spirit of the Aelfrics is One, and it is the force which allows each of us to move on. No one knows where we go, but there have been signs of us returning. Signs that only some of our Elders can see. Our Elders, our rulers, our pride, our most revered ones.”

Great. With all the poetic narrative, I feel she’s leaving me in a bigger haze than before! The minute she mentions the Elders, a small, distinct group appears in the background. They are all significantly taller and more richly dressed than the others. They are also the only ones looking up at the rising, deceased Elf.      

“We all have the ability to create, which we learn to perfect. These images you’re seeing now, they are drawn on the walls of your imagination. This is what all Newborns do, as practice, before the real creating begins”

Interesting Talent she has! Immaterial, yet infinite. “And this is what you alone can do for them? You show them these walls?”

“Yes. On top of creation, we also have our unique, individual Talent. This Talent reveals itself when you’re ready for it. You can’t provoke it, but once it’s there, your task is to make it stronger. We say that it comes as naturally as breathing, yet is as powerful as your will.”

 Echoing her words, the crowd of Elves disperses into a chaos of random gestures that are really hard to follow. I manage to notice one of them walking in a straight line through the others, as if he could penetrate solids. Another faceless one changes shape and resembles any of the other Elves she touches, while a third one puts his fingers against his temples, and everyone else disappears then reappears, as if they’d been shielded from me for a short instant. In the background, I notice someone simply levitating. “Flying?... Is that Demetrius? Where are his wings?”

“Props!” she throws, wryly. “He can very well fly without them. Don’t tell me you fell for them too… Not you, Little One!”

In her hilariously clichéd, lyrical voice, this sure sounds like teasing, non-serious jealousy. And if I’m not mistaken, Dem might be listening to all of this. I get why these two are such good friends of Peter’s. They seem to share his sense of banter. God… I miss him. That son of a bitch. 

“To those of us born without a Talent…”

Ah? I didn’t know there were any!

“… the Elders gracefully offer a gift of their own. A gift of responsibility. You might know one such Aelfric who has had this honor.”

“Um… I honestly don’t,” I rush to say, suddenly intrigued.

“Have you seen Nirav display any abilities?”

…Well I can’t say yes to that now, can I? I shake my head.

“His Talent is either not there, or hasn’t manifested yet. So he’s been given a very valuable task. That of ensuring passage to the Gardens.”

I recognize an artistic representation of the tall Elf being handed a bright ball of light by the Elders, and then… swallowing it?!

Ouch! Is this why he can’t speak? Is that the Elders’ “gift” to him?! So far I have only thought of it as a very powerful Talent when it was actually a consolation prize to the talentless... but at what cost?

“The Gardens?” I ask, to distract myself.

“Yes… Only once, in our entire existence, has an Elder reached such power, such wisdom to create them. They are like separate parts of this world, although they’re not really part of it.”

The entire illusion suddenly goes darker, and I gasp as I realize I’m inside what an Elf conceives as the cosmos. My own cosmos, with galaxies and all.  

“The bigger mystery though, is WHY he created them. He never said. Ever since he moved on, we’ve had the task of supervising and trying to understand the Gardens, and we’ve succeeded on some levels…”

Her voice abruptly loses its grand narrative pitch, and I blink as I feel her hand leaving my forehead and the shimmering images slowly fading out.

 “… And failed miserably on others,” she continues, while my eyes readapt to the scenery. When I finally see her clearly, I catch a tinge of sadness there. She smiles slowly, and reveals a secret that explains a lot. “I was once a Herald to the Gardens, just like Peter is now.”

At that point, I actually wish I could hug her. She’s been there. Maybe in my Garden, or in any other, but she’s seen it. Somehow this is enough for me to feel she would understand me better than the others. I want to ask her so many questions, but the sight of Vlad behind her cuts the conversation short.

He seems agitated, even upset. I hear him whisper in a slightly nervous tone, "What do they want?!"

‘They’ who? What did we miss?

I turn just in time to see Dem pushing a purple Lume into his ear. What really strikes me then is how rapidly his face falls. "Another Check! Prepare yourselves!"

Those cryptic words push Vladimir into the tensest state I've ever seen him in. He turns to me, grabs my arms, and violently pulls me up.

"Hey!" I protest feebly. I wonder if this skin bruises as easily as the old one.

"Get up! And look alive! Quick!" 

His features are unmistakably twisted into what could only be described as fear. And it's pretty contagious. What's happening? I growl with the effort it takes to stand up straight, and quickly grab on to his arm. I have no strength left; how will I pull this off? 

Everyone suddenly looks to the east, and my super-senses swell up and sound the Space for the smallest sign of someone coming.

First, I feel a lithe couple of steps speedily coming closer. But then, another couple... Then another, then another. What is this?
The steps are rough, pounding... And there's a certain military cadence to them. I try to swallow, but my throat is too dry. Vlad whispers almost inaudibly in my ear, "The Realm's Sentinels. They make rounds, looking for Insurgents and Invalids. So please, please, let them not see you're unwell!"   

I try to inhale but my lungs don't follow. What is this place?! Not only do they refuse to treat the ill, but they also capture them?! A rush of adrenaline helps me open my eyes and straighten my shoulders a bit more, but to someone who knows me, it's obvious I'm not okay; not entirely anyway.  

Slowly, I start sensing a very strange… vibe. It's neither a temperature, nor a vibration, but more like an "impression". An impression of anger, of lethal determination, of a thirst for blood. I knew my super-senses could latch on to sounds, to images, but not to actual feelings or intent. And this is one I wish I hadn't perceived.

And suddenly… there they were, stepping one by one out of the sculpture maze, in their terrifying, dark stringency and clenched jaws. No less than twenty Aelfrics, marching in blood-curdling, angular formation. They're so synchronized that they all almost look alike. And those uniforms, for lack of a better term, resemble much more the Human image of how an Elf should be dressed, with their dark brown, mid-length capes, partly covering an eerily clear metallic cuirass. The latter has an extremely intricate carving of a giant tree, all across the chest - and it looks oddly familiar… Didn't I see this same one in Sam's thread shafts? The cuirass's curves draw, rather faithfully, what I've come to describe as their Elf-marble muscles, and its lower part extends into scale-shaped chaps going all the way down to their ankles. What is most striking though, are their helmets. Round at the front and pointy at the back, they remind me of those weird biking helmets worn for the Olympics. But I couldn't for the life of me take my eyes off the ear area: the sides of each helmet are elegantly ornate with a breathtaking, dark-green carving of a leaf, pointing upwards. 

Huh... That's probably what Humans saw as Elf ears!

Wait… Could it be that Sentinels were the first kind of Elves that Earth had actually seen? By the looks of them, no wonder things had gone so wrong then.   

The formation comes to a full stop at a rather safe distance, and the leading Sentinel detaches and approaches Demetrius. No forehead-touching or closed eyes here; only short words, in their very musical language, which somehow sounds dissonant coming from the brutish leader. 

I throw a quick glance at Vlad, who seems to have gone into a shell of extreme concentration. Somehow, I want him to understand that if I'm addressed directly, and in Elvish, he'd better have some sort of plan! 

The longest five minutes of my life go by, minute by ticking minute, as the leader's tone seems to rise with every one of his replies. His creepy, grey eyes have a subtle purple-ish gleam, as they browse through the small group, and linger on mine. Twice. 

Don't move, don't breathe, don't blink!

Then, his long, leather-clad arm rises slowly, and his majestic finger seems to be pointing towards me. Fuck!!!

Everyone turns and I get this weird feeling that they're looking right through me. The nervousness makes my knees tremble, as I find it harder and harder to remain standing. If everyone in this place could point me out so easily, then we have a snowball's chance in hell of getting to Danielle's Space unharmed, and then trying to convince her of the cover story.

What the Sentinel does then is so violent it almost shatters my teeth: he lets his massive body fall down on one knee, and furiously plunges his fist into the ground. And instead of a rippling effect, his move provokes a scene that's straight out of my nightmares: just like a snake, slithering underground, and lifting a huge mound everywhere it passes, a horribly fast trail of lifted earth speeds towards me, as if something were about to dig itself out and bite me whole. My screams are choked before even reaching my mouth, and I stand there, a stone sculpture, waiting to be eaten alive.  

But Vlad would have it otherwise. He yanks my arm backwards and moves me from the trail's path. I look at him, confused, then back at the trail. So this wasn't aimed at me?!

The mound continues its speedy advance into the Workshop, and soon, all the sculptures in its way start dropping like Dominos. One by one, they fall and shatter, till the real target is finally revealed. Out of nowhere, a scream fills the air as an Elf is literally propelled by the angry trail, and flies up, then starts his descent straight towards us. In a terrifying counter action, the Sentinel jumps up, grabs the flying Elf by the waist, and pulls him down to the ground, smashing him so violently into the earth that he is folded in two. The ensuing screech sends icy ripples down our spines. 

I look at the poor Elf, and recognize a student I'd seen earlier - Akaär? What could he possibly have done to deserve this?! And where was he hiding?... Could he have seen me crying, earlier?

With a stony hand still pushed into Akaär's stomach, the Sentinel recites something which sounds rehearsed. The student protests all throughout, with a voice going from begging to screaming. It's so atrocious that I clench my fists, only to feel Vlad's hand against my back, urging me not to show emotion. I try to concentrate on my breathing, when suddenly, Akaär twists his head backwards, in an attempt to look at me. I instinctively step back, only to witness an abrupt and familiar scene: everything, the Elves present, the golden sky, the vibrating ground... - everything goes very, very still.

"Don't you dare move!!" I hear Vlad whisper, with his fingers imbedded in my arm like a vise. "These are the last people I should be using my powers on, and if a hair on your head moves now, they will notice it when I unfreeze them. DO YOU UNDERSTAND?"

"Y..yes! Yes-s!!" My voice borders dangerously on hysteria.

"Akaär has done some very condemnable things on his end, and he's trying to divert the attention from himself by turning it onto you. He doesn't know anything, but he saw Dem carrying you and laying you on the ground. He has just accused you of being an Invalid. This means you could be given the same treatment he just did."

My breath comes out in ragged puffs, and I realize how badly I'm shaking.

"STOP MOVING!" He tightens his grip around my arm. "Now repeat after me: Direth nur, lenyren ome Deni-el."

"Direth nur, lenyren... Oma.."

"OmE! Ome Deni-el. It means 'I am not, I swear in Danielle's name'. So say it now, and say it like you mean it. And Lily.."

"Hmm?" The shaking is getting worse.

"Please, whatever life you've got left in you, I beg you... Use it to look alert. Please... Now, ready?"

My silence is enough for him. Suddenly, everything comes back to life, and the Sentinel looks up at me, as Akaär keeps repeating the same words, again and again.

"Direth nur!" I say a little too forcefully.

The Sentinels all stare at me, slightly taken aback by the sound of my voice. 

"Lenyren... Ome Deni-el!"

At those words, both the group and the Sentinels touch their chests, in respect for the name. And just like that, the leader leaves Akaär's waist for his foot, and drags him like a dead prey, while the young Elf continues with the heart-tearing howling. The others turn and walk away, as abruptly as they came, and I wait till the last one's disappeared before dropping like a leaf, and simply letting my knees crash against the hard ground. At this point, I'm too weak to care about pain.

Vlad instinctively pulls at my arm in the hopes of alleviating the shock, while Dem and Indya rush to my side. No one says anything however, and their silence shows it was as traumatic to them as it was to me.

Vlad is the first to break the silence."You did well... You did well..." he encourages.

The female Elf doesn't seem intimated though - by anything for that matter. All throughout the inspection and arrest, she'd remained as composed as she is now, with the addition of a slightly disdainful, lifted brow over her grey eyes every time the Sentinel spoke. She must not find any of them as scary as Vlad and I do.

"What was that?!" I quickly change the subject.

"Sentinels doing a Check. Aaagain," Indya rolls her eyes, but doesn’t see it fit to explain further. "You swore in Danielle's name," she then says out of the blue, "which makes it impossible to lie. But... you really do look like an Invalid!" 

"Indy!!" Dem scolds.

I wish I could deny the accusation, but their disbelieving words and wary faces are the last thing my brain registers, before running out of any sort of energy left, and completely fading to black. 


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